Breaking down the ultimate race

By Todd Archer
Updated: August 7, 2010

DALLAS — Emmitt Smith was a freshman at the University of Florida when Walter Payton retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher in 1987 with 16,726 yards.

With an 11-yard run on Oct. 27, 2002, against Seattle at Texas Stadium, Smith broke what seemed to be Payton’s unbreakable record, and he played two more seasons in Arizona to pad the lead to 18,355 yards.

As Smith enters his sixth year of retirement, no current running back is within 5,865 yards of his record, but he feels like he only temporarily holds it.

“I do believe it will be broken,” Smith said. “I’m not naive to think it could not be broken. No one actually thought Walter Payton’s record could be approached, and here I am in 2002 being able to break that record and extend it out.

“I do know this: It’s going to take an awful lot to get there. I know what it took for me to get there. It’s not easy, especially as the game evolves with more sophisticated defenses. If you happen to make it to Years 10, 11, 12, the pounding will take its toll.”

Smith’s lead blocker for so many years, Daryl Johnston, now one of Fox’s lead analysts, believes the 18,355 will become a number known like 56 (Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak) or 2,632 (Cal Ripken’s consecutive games).

“I remember he came to Dallas and he said, ‘My individual goal when I retire is to be the all-time leading rusher in the history of the NFL,’ ” Johnston said. “At that time, you looked at Walter Payton’s record and I mean Walter Payton played in every game, played at a high level and was lucky he never got hurt and didn’t really play on great teams for a long time, and he never came off the field. It’s great to have a goal, but I thought Walter’s record was unbreakable.

“Now Emmitt’s added how much to that? That’s two or three good seasons in the NFL at age 33, 34.”

Who has the best chance?

Of the top 10 active runners in the NFL, only two backs are younger than 30 – Washington’s Clinton Portis, who has 9,696 yards in eight seasons, and St. Louis’ Steven Jackson, who has 6,707 yards in six seasons.

They have both missed 12 games during their careers. Smith missed 14 games in 13 seasons, and two came because of a contract dispute in 1993.

Smith had LaDainian Tomlinson targeted as a possible successor. The TCU-ex had eight straight 1,000-yard seasons in San Diego. He carried the ball a lot – he had at least 313 carries in each of his first seven seasons – and he was durable.

But in his last two years with the Chargers, Tomlinson ran for 1,840 yards, including just 730 yards in 2009. He is about to enter his 10th season and first with the New York Jets, but he no longer seems to be the threat.

“In the last couple of years, his career has been going a little sideways,” Smith said. “He’s in New York now. We’ll see how he transitions and how things happen up there.”

Two of the best backs in the NFL, Adrian Peterson andChris Johnson, are 24. Johnson had 2,006 yards last season in Tennessee. Peterson has had at least 1,341 in his first three seasons in Minnesota.

Johnson would have to average more than 1,500 yards over the next 10 years to catch Smith. Peterson would have to average 1,387 over the next 10 years.

Why it won’t be broken

The game has changed. Smith led the NFL in carries in 1991 (365), 1994 (368) and 1995 (377). Since his rookie year, only one other running back has led the league in carries more than once.

Ricky Williams led the NFL with 383 and 392 carries in 2002-03.

During his career with the Cowboys, Smith took the bulk of the carries. Only five times did Smith’s backup have more than 75 carries in a season. “He’s a rare, rare football player,” said Cowboys assistant head coach Jason Garrett and also Smith’s teammate.

“Think about what he did over the course of time and the position he played. Week in and week out, defensive coaches since he was 14 years old told everybody, ‘That’s Emmitt Smith. We’ve got to stop that guy,’ whether it was in high school, certainly at Florida and in the NFL.”

In five of the last seven seasons since Smith’s departure from the Cowboys, they’ve had two running backs with more than 100 carries each in the same season.

Garrett has to figure out ways to get three backs -Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice – involved. Even Adrian Peterson rested when the Vikings had Chester Taylor to handle the third-down role.

Close but …

Emmitt Smith thought LaDainian Tomlinson would challenge his record, but Tomlinson has seemed to succumb to the same weakness that stopped other great running backs: time.

The wall seems to be when a running back turns 30.

Maybe we would be talking about Smith being the NFL’s second-leading rusher had Barry Sanders not retired after 10 seasons in Detroit with 15,269 yards. In 1998, as a 30-year-old, Sanders ran for 1,491 yards on 343 carries.

There didn’t appear to be any slippage in Sanders’ game when he decided to walk away. Smith ran for 5,789 yards after he turned 30. Other backs haven’t been as lucky.

Curtis Martin was 31 when he led the NFL with 1,697 yards for the New York Jets in 2004, but he couldn’t make it through the 2005 season, finishing with 735 yards.

Once Jerome Bettis, the NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher, reached 30, he was no longer Pittsburgh’s featured back. He had a streak of 1,000-yard seasons end at six in 2002 when he finished with 666 yards.

Marshall Faulk, the most multidimensional back of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was 29 when he had his 1,000-yard streak end at five when he ran for 953 yards.

Edgerrin James, 32, hasn’t retired, but his 125 yards on 46 carries in seven games last year for Seattle showed he doesn’t have much left.